I used to love to take a trip on an airplane. And my airline of choice was United. I flew on them because their planes were clean, they got me to where I wanted to go most of the time without a plane change (particularly when I lived in San Francisco), and I could follow all of the air traffic fun on my headset, giving me something the remote possibility of learning something, while mindlessly staring out the window.
Almost a decade ago my love affair with flying ended, sometime after the love affair with my (now) wife began. We were often separated by hours of overnight flights and thousands of miles. It was also a time when United went bankrupt while their planes were over capacity. Since then, the Towers fell on 9/11 (I was in the UK at the time), and we’ve become so paranoid about our personal safety thanks to the Bush Era approach of leading from a position of fear that air travel has become a flying prison experience. And so I have largely stopped.
My own personal travel has dropped from a peek of 120,000 miles per year down to roughly 30,000. Yes, I still travel, but considerably less, and not often to America. There are more than a few reasons for this:
- Flying is expensive, especially for families. I now have one.
- Fuel surcharges that can be over 200% of the cost of the ticket (something that Continental misleads customers to believe it is entirely beyond their control).
- Distance- this cuts both ways: I don’t need a plane (or even clothing) to see my wife and daughter, while my parents and American friends are much farther away, making the trip both more expensive and difficult.
- Convenience- who wants to deal with the TSA? To be fair, here in Switzerland they really do make it as painless as possible. I have only ever once missed a flight here in Switzerland, when a train broke down, and the SBB actually rebooked me on the next flight before I arrived at the airport!
- A long flight is hard on a child– any child. Parents need to think long and hard before putting their children– and other passengers– through that. We made that mistake by bringing our daughter on a long haul at the age of 4 months. When she was sick. Big mistake. Even though the doctor told us it was okay for her to fly (he was wrong) in order to get to Florida.
- But beyond that, anyone in the back of a long haul has a miserable experience ahead of them from the moment they board. You can be assured that drinks on American airlines won’t be free, the movies will be lousy, and the food will be, if anything, worse than you remember.
- Families have very few options to upgrade. When I’ve done so, it hasn’t been worth it. After all, what’s a comfortable chair if you can’t sleep because you need to attend to a child?
All of this boils down to the fact that the average flight to the U.S. costs us around $3,100. It’s about 1/3 that to elsewhere within Europe. Compare that with the $388 it used to cost me to go from San Francisco to the East Coast.
This leaves business travel. I have reduced that as well. A lot. Some people aren’t in a position to do so, I am, and I have. It has helped that my company now discourages travel where four years ago people would just as soon hop an airplane than pick up a phone. Now we have TelePresence, WebEx, and all sorts of other collaboration tools at our disposal. I applaud the change.
But even when I do travel, within Europe I prefer the train when it is feasible. I recently chose the train over the plane to get from Zürich to Maastricht. That turned out to take only about an hour longer without a plane than it would have taken with. But it cost quite a bit more. Within Switzerland I always use the train to Geneva. No reservations required, and it just works.